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Around midnight in Nantes, a family of nine is huddled around a screen as D.C. United opens the 2022 MLS season against Charlotte FC.

Two parents and seven siblings look on watching, waiting, hoping for No. 13 to get subbed on.

In the 64th minute, that moment arrived.

“That’s the reason I’m doing it,” rookie central midfielder Sofiane Djeffal explains. “I told my parents, I told my siblings and all of the people that are close to me, the only reason why I wanted to do it was just to have my father’s name on my back and be able to represent him and my family.”

Djeffal’s path to Major League Soccer can only be described as unorthodox.

Five years ago, his future in the sport was up in the air with few signs pointing toward a professional career. Getting drafted by D.C. United in the second round of the 2022 MLS SuperDraft was a massive moment. Earning an MLS contract in preseason, debuting in the season opener and cementing himself as a first team contributor as a rookie was “crazy.”

Eleven games and 8 starts into the season, Djeffal has made a bigger splash than perhaps any second-round pick in recent memory. And if you ask him, he’s only getting started.

The origin of this budding success story began at the Centre sportif José-Arribas, home of Ligue 1’s FC Nantes. Djeffal came up in the famed academy system of his hometown club, capturing a U17 league title for Les Canaries along the way. The aspiration, as for any young player, was to break through to the senior squad. 

“I spent 12 years in the Academy,” he said. “Things didn’t go well towards the end, and I ended up getting released. At this moment, my mindset was that I’m going to show them what I can really do and that they made a mistake.” 

He’d have to travel over 5,000 miles to do it. With admittedly little English-speaking ability, the then-18-year-old Frenchman packed his bags for Corvallis, Oregon, leaving his family and friends behind to get an education and play soccer at Oregon State University. 

After a year under head coach Terry Boss’ tutelage, a different mentality—debatably one that has brought him to this point in his career—had taken hold. 

“You set your expectations and what you want to achieve, and if you really just compare yourself to who you were yesterday, you can only get better. When you set your expectations towards other people, then they will define who you are. They will define what you can achieve. That shift changed my life.” 

That year, Djeffal was named Pac-12 Freshman of the Year after starting every game of the 2018-19 season and contributing 5 goals and 7 assists for the Beavers. Djeffal’s impact in Oregon—similar to his impact in D.C. thus far—was instant and continued to improve year-over-year.  

The source of his motivation, he explained, was no longer about proving people wrong. Instead, it was about proving himself and his family members right and repaying them for their support. 

“We have a family group chat, and you see all of those comments from my family telling me ‘great job,’” he said. With about a 9-hour time difference between them, Djeffal’s family would tune in around 3 or 4 a.m. for most of his college matches.  

“That’s why you want to reach your full potential—to make sure you give back for that support when things were not going my way earlier in my career,” Djeffal said. “I think what made me realize that that’s what I want to do the most is the joy that I can bring to my family. To see that pride in your father’s and mother’s eyes is a feeling you can’t compare to anything else. So, when I realized that I could give that back to my family by doing something that I love, I realized there’s no better thing I can do.” 

That same thing applies to the supporters, Djeffal explained.  

“I want us to be a team that inspires. You can change a lot of people’s lives by the way you play. We have to work, but that’s definitely my main goal with D.C. United. I want to give back to the people that gave me that opportunity.”  

At 23-years-old, Djeffal carries the awareness and poise of a veteran midfielder. But it’s his youthful optimism and positivity that is helping shift the culture of the club. 

“I want to be a part of that project, give back to the team and get a trophy.”